Famed producer ruled the television airwaves with crime shows featuring quirky characters
Many of Stephen Cannell’s friends, including J. Rickley Dumm (fourth from the left) and the Greatest American Hero himself, William Katt (third from the right), reunite twice a year, on Cannell’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, to remember their friend.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, if you were watching a crime drama on television, odds are you were watching a show created by School of Journalism and Communications graduate Stephen Cannell ’64 (1941-2010).
The Rockford Files, Baretta, the Greatest American Hero, the A-Team, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, and Silk Stalkings were all created by the Duck, who was ultimately responsible for more than 40 television shows. The founder and namesake of Stephen J. Cannell Productions won an Emmy Award and two Writers Guild of America awards for his work, and at one point was the third-biggest producer on TV. He wrote more than 450 episodes and produced more than 1,500, all before changing tack in 1996 and releasing the first of his 18 novels.
And he did it all while battling dyslexia so severe that he failed three grades before ever reaching high school.
Despite struggling to read and write, Cannell grew up with no doubts about what he wanted his career to be. His favorite subject was English, and he had designs on being an author before ultimately enrolling at the UO to study journalism.
Born in Los Angeles in 1941 to a family of USC Trojan fans, Cannell was part of a wave of Californians who headed north to enroll at the UO during the 1950s and 1960s. There were so many students from the Golden State in those days that a sweatshirt was sold that proclaimed the campus to be “The University of California at Eugene.” As a Duck, Cannell joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and met fellow Californians during rush at MacArthur Court, sparking friendships that lasted the rest of his life.
“Steve was the first guy I met from the Sigma Chi house,” said Sacramento native J. Rickley Dumm ’64. “When I got to the Sigma Chi house, Steve and I became fast friends and ended up rooming together.”
Cannell and Dumm bonded over a mutual love of writing—one night, the pair wrote seven term papers together (including three for fellow students; the pair split the research, and Dumm typed what Cannell dictated)—and a love of crime dramas, in particular a New York-set drama named Naked City, which aired 138 episodes during its four seasons on air.
“It always finished with the line, ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them,’” said Dumm. “Steve and I were always interested in the episode titles. We bought an old black and white TV set, and every Wednesday night we’d sit in our room and watch TV together.”
Cannell drove a baby blue Thunderbird while a student at the UO, and despite coming from a well-off family—his father owned a high-end furniture and interior decorating company—he was known for being just “one of the guys,” and took on the role of Sigma Chi house manager to help pay for his room and board.
“He had that ‘wow’ factor, but he was very down-to-earth and friendly,” said John Dahlem ’65, a fellow member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.
Cannell’s dyslexia caused him to feel as if he didn’t fit in though, and he often struggled to spell words correctly and order events in his mind. At the UO he was aided by several faculty members who recognized his potential, including one he often singled out during interviews as being particularly influential on his career.
“I knew that Steve was a talented writer, and I valued him, supported him, and encouraged him,” said Ralph Salisbury, professor emeritus at the UO and one of Cannell’s English professors. “He was a grateful former student who praised me beyond my deserving, in Newsweek and many other places.”
After earning his journalism degree in 1964, Cannell returned to California to work for his father’s company, writing scripts after the office closed each day. After four years of toiling, he and Dumm sold their first script—an episode of It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner—to Universal, and three years (and number of Ironside and Columbo scripts later) Cannell was named story editor of the police drama Adam-12.
At Universal, Cannell created seven TV series, including The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, and Baretta, starring Robert Blake. By the age of 29 he had risen through the ranks to become an executive producer, known for creating flawed protagonists whose quirky personalities shone through on screen.
In 1979, he left Universal to form his own production company, Stephen J. Cannell Productions. The first three series the company produced—Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, The Greatest American Hero, and The A-Team—cemented his status as the premier creator of crime shows on TV. Shows such as Wiseguy, Renegade, 21 Jump Street, and Silk Stalkings followed, all with Cannell writing scripts and pulling the strings behind the scenes, and many with Dumm serving as a producer.
Due to his dyslexia, Cannell often dictated to executive assistant Grace Curcio, who would transcribe his drafts and turn them into perfectly proofed scripts. Curcio worked with Cannell for more than two decades, helping him with his TV shows and later his novels. But while Cannell gave the world such memorable characters as The Rockford Files’ Jim Rockford (played by James Garner), The A-Team’s B.A. Baracus and Hannibal Smith (played by Mr. T and George Peppard respectively), Wiseguy’s Vinnie Terranova (played by Ken Wahl), and 21 Jump Street’s Tom Hanson (played by newcomer Johnny Depp), it is some of the lesser-known characters from his shows that resonate the loudest among his friends, as a few happen to be named after them.
“I wrote to him once and said I thought Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was a great program,” said Dahlem. “He wrote back and said he’d put me in the program.”
Cannell was true to his word, and in one episode a character named John Dahlem appeared. While the real Dahlem served in Vietnam before becoming a historian and a school principal, the TV version was a probation officer who turned to a life of crime.
“When my wife and I saw that, we totally cracked up,” Dahlem said. “[The character] was a total butthead, but that was typical Steve—a jokester.”
Two of Cannell’s shows were given a new life on the silver screen recently, as Twentieth Century Fox released The A-Team, starring Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper, in 2010; and Columbia Pictures released 21 Jump Street, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 2012. Cannell produced both films, which earned a combined $377 million worldwide at the box office. Another of his hits will be making a comeback soon too, as Fox is bringing The Greatest American Hero back to television, with Cannell’s daughter Tawnia McKiernan producing.
Throughout his career, Cannell remained close to his alma mater, returning for reunions and football games. He was also a devoted family man, and spent as much time as he could with wife Marcia, his eighth-grade sweetheart; and children Tawnia, Chelsea, Cody, and Derek, the latter of whom tragically passed away in 1981 at the age of 15.
“He loved being home with his family,” said Dumm. “Most of the time outside of work was spent with them. He was a good family man and husband. He was just one of the guys; everybody liked him.”
All of which made the phone call in 2010 that much more heartbreaking. Cannell spent as much time outdoors as he could, playing tennis, jogging, or relaxing on his boat. Ultimately though, his time in the sun led to him contracting melanoma, a fact he kept from his friends until five months before his death.
“My oldest son called me on September 30 at around 5:00 a.m. and told me Stephen had died that night,” said Dumm. “I didn’t hear a sound. I said ‘I love you,’ then hung up the phone and wept for a long time.”
Cannell’s friends keep his memory alive by reuniting twice a year—on his birthday, February 5, and the anniversary of his death, September 30—for dinner and drinks, and to spend several hours reminiscing about the Duck who ruled an entire television genre for two decades.
“I still miss him,” said Dumm. “I have a picture of him in my place here, and I look at it every day and say, ‘Hi, Stevie.’”
Following Stephen’s passing, Marcia donated to the UO in his memory, and today his name is displayed near the Interpretive Center Cascades in the lobby of the Ford Alumni Center as one of the Ducks who made the Cascades possible.